By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
In an unsettling week that saw the solar system expanding to 12 planets, the discovery of creepy Frankenstein grass engineered in a lab and growing wild in the fields of central Oregon, and the shelling of Red Sox pitchers for 47 runs at the hands of Bronx bats (12.67 bullpen ERA), our lives cry out for normalcy—relief from an Alice in Wonderland world where “nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t.”
In the blink of a celestial eye, scientists turned the universe on its cauliflower ear with the “discovery” of three new planets: Ceres, an asteroid of a sphere between Mars and Jupiter; Charon, once considered a stepsister of Pluto; and exotic Xena, now the outermost planet, at least until scientists declare new ones.
If that wasn’t earth shaking enough, an unsanctioned form of genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant grass was found growing at will outside an Oregon lab, suggesting “agricultural biotechnology cannot be adequately controlled,” The New York Times reported. Yikes! We’re heading to a plant and animal kingdom of genetic copies and clones.
The Friday-Saturday-Sunday Red Sox drubbing doesn’t deserve comment, other than to say Josh Beckett gave up more walks than the Freedom Trail.
This clearly was the weekend to be in absentia from earth. No better place to flee than Nantucket where the real and imagined are clearly defined—a place in summer that offers more captains of industry per square inch than Manhattan, Los Angeles and Chicago combined, more heavenly bodies than a star-flecked sky, and locals that are as real as beach plums. Out in ‘Sconset on the island’s refined eastern edge, nestled between rose-grown bluffs and waves of cranberry bogs, Charon and Xena are not “plutons,” but names that are likely to surface on the guest list at The Summer House—a snug and elegant escape that offers up a Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald mise en scene, as its owners promise. The only news to be generated this side of the island, nurtured from 17th century fishing shanties, is Channel 5’s Natalie Jacobson having lunch on the open sitting porch overlooking a wide swath of the Atlantic or summer resident John Kerry dining on seared halibut and jumbo lump crab.
No word either on Iraq, Colombian drug lords or Joe Lieberman’s independent streak in the wide broadsheet weekly Inquirer & Mirror, just a lead story on high energy Selectman Doug Bennett running for state senate by chasing cars around rotaries, and a sobering business piece on how millionaire summer people aren’t spending as much money this season. “The goose that laid the golden egg is severely annihilated,” proffers taxi-driver Bruce Watts, a former selectmen and retired fire chief.
Ah, Nantucket, the perfect perspective for a world on the whack. Cellphone coverage is spotty here, news is a day late, and the rich, it seems, are a dollar short. It’s perfect, just perfect! I think I’ll have the native striped bass tonight.
Banned in Boston and barred from the Cape Cod
By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
Banned in Boston and barred from the Cape, the dissenting Catholic lay reform group, Voice of the Faithful, met recently with Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley in a symbolic gesture that had more to do with opening blocked lines of communication than with mea culpas. It is not likely that any significant reform work within the Catholic Church will occur at any time soon without a confession that goes beyond Bernard Cardinal Law’s 2002 disingenuous resignation statement, “To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness.”
Smacks of the cure-all absolution plea in the shadows of confessional box: “For these and all the sins of my past life, I am sorry!”
More and more—from church officials, to corporate heads, to politicians, to working stiffs on the street—we as a society seem to be excusing ourselves from confession, whether it’s queuing up in a church line or seeking forgiveness from a colleague, spouse or friend, experts in the field are now saying. The preface ”Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” seems to have gone the way, in some circles, of eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
What’s happening in the Catholic Church is symptomatic of a broader change in values and a blurring of the line between right and wrong. “The most striking development in the practice of confession in the U.S. has been its disappearance…and the speed with which it has collapsed,” James O’Toole (on right), Boston College history professor, author, and one of the foremost authorities on the history of the Catholic Church in America, wrote in a Boston College Magazine piece on the subject. “In the modern day, the power of evil is just as strong as it ever was (maybe stronger), but the American Catholics no longer understand the world and their behavior in it through the precise distinctions between mortal and venial sins. They are only too fully aware of what Commonweal called ‘the ambiguity of evil,” and they resort to many sources of moral authority—most notably, their own consciences—in facing that ambiguity.”
O’Toole, in an August Boston Irish Reporter profile, said our view of the notion of sin has morphed to more collective transgressions “Sin seems to have shifted away from personal responsibility—from ‘I pushed my sister’ to social issues…It’s a broader sin, one that is difficult to denounce individually,” he said.
As we become more “educated,” concedes a recent University of Cincinnati report on moral values in America, “the complexity of life does make drawing a line between good and evil difficult.”
Education makes man a more clever fellow
Our complex broadband information highway is choking us today with options. Anything you want—from drugs to pornography and everything in between—is available with a keystroke. The warning signs are posted. Without an abrupt change in values and direction, we are headed into a black hole of malevolence. Observed the reflective C.S. Lewis decades ago, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man more of a clever devil.”
Voter indifference is epidemic from California to Chatham
Want indisputable proof of global warming? Look to the Valley of the Sun in Phoenix where record 116-degree heat this summer is frying craniums. Arizona is considering a proposal to boost voter turnout with a $1 million lottery prize to a randomly selected voter who casts a ballot, the Associated Press reports. Each ballot, according to the plan, would be assigned a number; the commission overseeing the Arizona Lottery would then hold a drawing to pick a winner—the payoff coming from unclaimed Lottery prizes.
Some crap shoot! Opponents of the measure say it will trivialize elections with Pavlov-like rewards. Encouraging democracy with bags of cash is certainly not what the Founding Fathers had in mind.
Arizonians—who may fear waves of political aftershocks from neighboring California where less than 30 percent of the state’s registered voters turned out in the last election—will vote on the proposal Nov. 7 after supporters gathered about 184,000 ballot signatures, nearly 50 percent more than required.
From California to Chatham, voter indifference is epidemic. “Of the 153 democracies in the world, the United States ranks near the bottom for voter involvement,” notes political observer John Dean, adding that 89 percent of potential voters participate in national and local elections in places like Japan and Germany. Many U.S. politicians may want to keep it this way. With less than half of potential voters exercising their franchise over the last four decades, it’s easier to spin 26 percent of those voting with an intense special interest drive, head-turning but hollow sound bites, and aggressive election-eve phone banking and e-mail blasts. Today, only a handful of states allow Election Day registration. By contrast, voter participation in those states is about five percent to 15 percent higher than other states. Two years ago, a MassVOTE survey found that nine percent of those who showed up to vote in Massachusetts on Election Day were denied the right because they weren’t registered.
Indeed, voter education and registration starting in high school and appealing to the electorate’s self-interest will help overcome voter malaise, a paralyzing ennui. Self-interest, observed Alexis de Tocqueville, is “the chief, if not the only driving force behind all behavior.” Wrote de Tocqueville, “(It) is difficult to force a man out of himself and get him to take an interest in the affairs of the whole state, for he has little understanding of the way in which the fate of the state can influence his own lot.”
Dean quotes de Tocqueville in his Findlaw column, as well as the annotations of Robert Hutchins, former dean of Yale Law School. “The death of democracy,” Hutchins once said, “is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment.”
Our leaders clearly need to feed the “self-interest” of an anorexic electorate by reforming voter registration laws and educating voters that their opinions count. You don’t need a lottery ticket for that.
By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
Imagine a world, ponders realty show host Joe Rogan, “where your greatest fears become reality.” Welcome to Boston, where reality on the road is ugly. Fear Factor returns to the Hub this week, and contestants have no clue of the gut-wrenching stunts they may have to perform, as they pick their way through the angst of plying the most mismanaged, maligned and costly federal highway project in the nation’s history. There’s no light at the end of this tunnel, just a black hole of anguish.
Grieved family and friends on Saturday mourned the death of the 38-year-old Jamaica Plain woman, Milena Del Valle, killed in last week’s Big Dig tunnel collapse of tons of concrete ceiling slabs. Inside a crowded, searing church, state and local officials—Gov. Mitt Romney, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew J. Amorello among them—listened as mourners pleaded with officials to bury political differences on the cause of this tragedy and make the tunnel system safe for drivers. Outside the church, friends of the deceased gave officials holy hell for waiting until Del Valle’s death before initiating a nuts and bolts review of the $14.6 billion project, riddled from the start with deficiencies and the stench of malfeasance and misfeasance.
“Why not do that before this happened?” Margarita Sifre told The Boston Globe. “This situation could have been prevented.”
Millions throughout Massachusetts are wondering the same thing: Why do officials have to wait for a tragedy before acting in earnest? As investigators sort through reports of more than 240 loose ceiling bolt fixtures scattered throughout the faulty Interstate 90 connector, officials and project supervisors need to take inventory of the warning signs—from Big Dig audits ten years ago citing waste and mismanagement, to gushing leaks, to raining rocks and debris, to indictments for tainted concrete.
“What we are looking at is anyone who had anything to do with what happened,” Reilly said last Tuesday in announcing his investigation. “No one is going to be spared.”
That ought to include a top-down Beacon Hill rebuke that flushes from the Governor’s Office (political impotency on this is no excuse), to the Legislature and into the Attorney General’s Office for not resolutely persisting on a comprehensive review of this fiasco that cost more in today’s dollars than the 51-mile Panama Canal. As for Amorello, he is about as useful to this process now as the steel tieback that once held in place a 40-foot section of concrete ceiling over eastbound Interstate 90.
The Japanese say fix the problem, not the blame. Those affected by this disaster seem to be saying: fix the problem, then assess the blame. And assess it in a way that rotates heads.
Of the reams of news coverage, scores of interviews and hours of video, the most enlightening analysis to date is from a 58-year-old Dorchester man who told the Globe: “Only $14.6 billion, you think it might work.”
By Greg O’Brien, Boston Irish Reporter
(Ed. Note: The O’Neill roots run deep on the Cape. The late Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill lived an active retirement in Harwich with his wife Millie, playing golf, contributing to the local food pantry and assisting with various charities. His son, Tom, former Massachusetts lieutenant governor and a man of influence in New England politics, has spent much time on the Cape with family and business ventures. The following profile of Tom O’Neill appeared in this month’s Boston Irish Reporter.)
In the lobby of O’Neill and Associates at 31 New Chardon Street, not far from the State House, is an imposing black and white photograph of a father and son. Almost sepia in tone, it cuts through generations of Boston politics like a spoon through chowder. In the photograph the father is leaning to the son, who seems to be hanging on every word. Larger than life, the late Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill jr.—the distinguished Speaker of the U.S House of Representatives and “a big man who never became a big shot,” as a friend recently noted—is very much a presence here. You can see it in the son’s face.
At 60, in the “sixth inning” of his life, as he terms it, Thomas P. O’Neill III, who served as Massachusetts lieutenant governor from 1975 to 1983 and now heads a seasoned team of government and public relations professionals, is becoming more and more his father’s son with the trademark tuft of white hair, a large bulbous noise, a “Hiyah, darlin’” grin, and piercing blue eyes that can see into the back room of any Boston establishment. Off the lobby, the south wall of a well-appointed conference room, the color of eelgrass at sunset, is framed with father-son memories and rows of photos of Tom with the likes of Ted Kennedy, George Bush, Bill Clinton and other political luminaries—both Democrat and Republican.
No one has to tell you that Tom O’Neill and his firm are well connected. Everything here speaks to a knack for opening doors and understanding the principles of marketing and the process of government. Beyond the photographs, strategically placed newspaper clips testify to this fact. The branding is everywhere. Even the paper hand towels in the bathroom are embossed with the company name. (Maybe it’s the Irish in me, but the hand towels were too nice, so I reached for the Kleenex.)
At 11:15 am on a steamy morning in mid June, about 45 minutes after the appointed time and right on schedule for the multi-tasking O’Neill, the son enters the room. He is tanned, appears relaxed, and is dressed smartly in a blue shirt, red tie, gray pants, and black loafers, no sox. Fashion aside, in every other way—body language, tone and personality—he reminds a visitor of the father. And on this day, five days before Father’s Day and a week after the dedication of a Big Dig tunnel in his father’s memory, all the son wants to talk about is his dad.
“I miss him terribly,” says O’Neill, recalling the gritty North Cambridge neighborhood where his parents were raised and where he grew up. “The world remembers Tip O’Neill as a politician. We remember him as a father, and a pretty good one!” says O’Neill, the oldest son, noting that many of his father’s lessons were “on the run or drive by,” but were lasting. “My dad was around mostly on weekends, but he made sure they were family-oriented weekends, spending time with Mom and all five of the children. He had a good sense of everything—from the neighborhood where we lived on up. He wanted to make sure we all got a good education, most especially his own children, and that we were taught the work ethic and shown values in life. We all worked at an early age, and understood the principles of loyalty—that we came from a neighborhood, that we had a family, and that we had a God.”
Among the greatest lessons his father taught him, O’Neill says, was an instruction that was simple and to the point. “Dad would always stress to us: You live in a working class neighborhood, and your father is a Congressman. Even though you don’t have money, you enjoy prestige. Don’t ever take advantage of it.” A man of many blessings, Tip O’Neill’s greatest gift, the son adds, was his “love of people and his ability to navigate through life.” When the Speaker died of cardiac arrest at age eighty-one on January 5, 1994, President Bill Clinton eulogized him as one of the nation's “most prominent and loyal champions of American workers” and as a man who “genuinely loved politics and people.”
At an early age, O’Neill had a gut that his father was special. “I had a sense growing up, I think we all did, that he was different from everyone else’s father.” It was a revelation confirmed in the third grade in 1952 when his father was first elected to Congress. “But we were not allowed to stay home and celebrate,” says O’Neill. “My father insisted we were in school the next day. It was a signal to the nuns and to the neighborhood that nothing was going to change or be taken advantage of.”
There were, however, to be some fleeting family windfalls, like the time O’Neill got an “A” in behavior in the seventh grade, and then told a nun in earnest that he didn’t deserve it. “You know, Mr. O’Neill,” the nun replied, “If I gave you what you deserve, you would flunk.” She promptly gave O’Neill an “F” for deportment, and got word back to the congressman. The next morning O’Neill was awoken by a strong backhand to his backside. “You know,” his father said with great aggravation, “I don’t have anything in life to give you, but for God sakes, learn to take advantage of what you have. You have a good personality, use it!”
It was a lesson and a backhand O’Neill never forgot, as he slowly embraced his father’s personality. Asked about the physical resemblance today, his eyes light up like vapor lights at Fenway. “Hey, I look like ‘em!” He is clearly proud of the fact. “When I get up in the morning and stare into the mirror, it’s frightening,” O’Neill jokes. “Actually, I wish I looked more like my Mom.”
O’Neill’s late mother Mildred (“Millie” Chabot-Miller) also had a strong sway on her son. “My Mom was very exacting, practical, and religious,” says O’Neill. “She was very much into the community and very much by herself. She had a defined streak of intelligence and privacy that carried her through life.”
Tip’s partner in every way, Millie O’Neill ultimately became the “godmother to the Democratic Party,” as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi once called her. “She was independent and had to be,” says O’Neill, “ just dealing with my father’s Washington schedule and raising the family by herself during the week required this.” The loner factor instilled great confidence in her and in her children. “Thanks to my mother, I have the ability,” says O’Neill, “to go off and be by myself for any period of time.” The gift of solitude, he adds, is a stroke of fortune in the hectic world of business and politics.
O’Neill’s parents connected at an early age. They met at St. John’s High School, now North Cambridge Catholic. “Mom was a freshman and dad was a junior,” says O’Neill. “They were just two poor kids who helped each other in school, and I think that beyond the physical attraction, they just grew together.”
The O’Neill roots run deep in North Cambridge. A third generation Irishman whose family came from Mallow, County Cork, O’Neill’s grandfather, Thomas P. O’Neill sr. was a bricklayer, who laid brick at Harvard Yard, and served one term on the Cambridge City Council, then called the Common Council, in 1899. His brother had served on the council earlier, the start of a long O’Neill family tenure in politics. It was O’Neill’s grandfather coined the phrase. After the loss of his city council seat, O’Neill’s grandfather coined the phrase, the centerpiece of his son’s political life, “All politics is local.” He became a ward boss after becoming Superintendent of Sewers, now Superintendent of Public Works, holding the job from 1902 to 1941. “It was a great political base, from which my father ran for office,” says O’Neill.
Early on, tragedy struck the O’Neill household—Tip’s mother, Ann, died from complications at his birth. “It’s a little know fact,” O’Neill says. “My father, like the Irish, never talked about it. I don’t remember his talking about it once, but I know it had an affect on him.” Tip’s father then remarried, and the family stayed in the neighborhood.
With family history firmly and directing his paths, Tom O’Neill attended the same high school as his parents and followed in his father’s footsteps to Boston College, which in those days was making the transition from a commuter school to a national university. He graduated with a degree in education, and taught for a week and a half at Watertown High School before abruptly quitting. “It was the closest thing to incarceration I’d ever experienced,” he recalls. “It just wasn’t for me.”
After talking to the dean at the BC business school, he determined his strength was in sales and after six months of training in New York, he got a job in Boston selling stocks and bonds for a company called Harris Upham, which later became a part of Smith Barney. While at Harris Upham, O’Neill engaged in politics, running his father’s reelection campaign. “There was an expectation as the oldest son that I would go into politics some day, be a candidate for office. I learned I had a knack for it.”
And he liked it. In 1972, he left Upham Harris to run for a seat in the legislature, the same district his father had represented, from Herald Square in North Cambridge to Belmont Hill. He won, but left after a term with the same angst he had over teaching. “It was awful, too confining,” he says. “You weren’t in control of your destiny.”
He still had a bug for politics. So as an “exit strategy,” he decided in 1974 to run for lieutenant governor. He assumed he could win the Democratic nomination with his dad’s name and his own modest accomplishments, running on a ticket with either Mike Dukakis or Bob Quinn. “But at that point, no one was going to beat the Republican incumbents (Gov.) Frank Sergeant and (Lt. Gov.) Donald Dwight,” recalls O’Neill. “ I figured if I just won the nomination, I’d reserve the right to go off and do my thing and come back and run again some day. But that August, too many criminals had escaped from state jails and the economy turned a bit.”
Dukakis and O’Neill were elected. During his term, O’Neill created and administered the Office of Federal-State Relations in Boston and Washington, continuing that role in his Ed King Administration tenure. After leaving office in 1983, O’Neill—now an experienced liaison—created a Boston PR firm that merged with communications consultant Pamela McDermott to become McDermott/O’Neill & Associates. After the two departed company, the firm was sold in 1999 to a unit of the Omnicom Group of New York. O’Neill stayed on, representing clients like Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, manager of the Central Artery/Ted Williams Tunnel. In 2003, O’Neill reacquired the assets of his old firm, along with the staff and clients. Today, O’Neill and Associates is a full service communications, government relations and public relations firm, specializing in how government, business and the media work, with clients ranging from W.B. Mason, to Harvard Pilgrim Health Care to the South Korean government.
Does O’Neill miss politics?
“Absolutely, I miss it,” he says. “Of course. But do I want to get off the couch on a Saturday afternoon and attend a ground breaking in order to become the next governor or the next U.S. Senator, well I suppose if I did, I’d be doing it. I haven’t yet.”
Sounding like his father, he adds, “I’ve built a good organization with wonderful people, and they have families and homes and need to educate their children. This is a real machine today, and I feel responsible for it.”
The talk returns to his father. “The secret to life, my father taught me, is doing what you want to do, and achieving what you must,” he says. “I’ve been pretty lucky so far with a good family and a good life.” O’Neill spends as much time as he can with his two children, daughter Leigh, 25 who just graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a graduate degree, and his son Tom, 19, a student at NYU. He and his wife, Jackie, who met at Boston College, are now separated.
None of this good fortune, O’Neill says, has happened by chance. Like his father, he is a man of faith, a conviction that has help him navigate the cross currents of life. Asked if he has a close personal relationship with his God, he pauses as if the question is awkward, then replies, “The Lord? Yes, I talk to Him. And He keeps telling me to do what I believe in.”
Not a bad game plan in the sixth inning of a life.